Parliamentary oversight and the ‘Kentucky Kid’ case
Inside ParliamentSunday, July 05, 2015
With Balford Henry
JUST weeks after Jamaica's Houses of Parliament co-hosted an international conference for legislators and civil servants involved with the oversight aspects of its work, an attempt to resume an experiment to give oversight to its commissions got off to a very poor start last week.
This column has been highlighting for several weeks the embarrassing state of the oversight mechanism at Gordon House. But, not in our wildest imagination could we have predicted what happened on Wednesday.
The newly reactivated committee, chaired by the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, Lloyd B Smith, was scheduled to have its first sitting then. The primary matter being a resolution from the House of Representatives to review the conflicting points raised by Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) Commissioner Terrence Williams and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn, on the issue of the fatal shooting of Robert 'Kentucky Kid' Hill by the police in 2009.
Not only was the chairman absent (with apology), but so, too, were several of the 17-member committee, very few of whom even bothered to send in an apology for absence. In order to start the proceedings, for which there is a time limit of four weeks, the six members present -- Members of Parliament Mikael Phillips, Gregory Mair and Denise Daley, and Senators Wensworth Skeffery, Sophia Fraser Liburd and Navel Clarke sat down to get the committee's business going.
Government senator, Wensworth Skeffery, noted the number of absentees and suggested that parliamentarians have to change the culture, in terms of carrying out their duties as members of committees.
Opposition MP Gregory Mair felt that instead of four members, including the chairman, forming a quorum, four members plus the chairman would have been more reflective of such a large committee.
Mair noted the importance of the committee and the fact that it would be required to deal with reports, including findings and recommendations, from important commissions of Parliament including the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), the Child Development Agency/Children's Advocate, the Office of the Public Defender and INDECOM.
Government member, Senator Navel Clarke, noted that the members had not even received copies of the reports that they would have to review, prior to the meeting.
Government backbencher, Denise Daley, said that she was not aware of being a member until she attended Parliament on Tuesday.
Fortunately, the members present were able to find a competent chairman in government backbencher Mikael Phillips, who was determined, with their support, to go forward.
Phillips quickly pointed out that the committee had exactly four weeks to meet and prepare a report on the issue for tabling in the House of Representatives, on whether or not the matter should be referred to the Cabinet.
He suggested that the committee take the next two weeks to study the documents, which include lengthy reports on the issue from both INDECOM and the ODPP.
The committee is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, July 16, when they will discuss questions arising from the reports to Parliament. They should meet again the following Wednesday when, if necessary, they may request the presence of both Williams and Llewellyn to clarify issues.
House Leader Phillip Paulwell had announced in mid-February that a special committee would be appointed to review the reports. That review should have ended by mid-March, as this process, under the standing orders, is required to be completed within a month.
There has been no explanation as to why that original decision by the House was not implemented for four months. However, it was obvious case that with the focus of Parliament being on the budget and sectoral debates, as well as the IMF targets, there was no space to accommodate it.
But, it is certainly a sad state of affairs, when even serious human rights issues and a conflict between two such important commissions become victims of this focus.
The background to this issue is that an aspiring artiste, Hill, publicly complained of constant harassment by members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). He used videos, for example, to transmit evidence of this harassment and publicise his fear that the police intended to kill him.
Among the videos was a film in which Hill captured police officers confronting him and his wife, Kumiko, who was eight months pregnant at the time, in his house. The video was uploaded to Youtube and went viral but the JCF showed little interest.
Hill was subsequently shot dead by the police on December 8, 2009 near his home, in what was reported as a shoot-out. His shooting, however, attracted both local and international attention and suspicions that it was in retaliation for an earlier incident.
Following an inquest into his death, three police officers -- Special Corporal Uriel Anderson, Constable Gary Thomas and Special Constable Norval Warren -- as well as two civilians, Marvia Morgan and Donovan Brown, were last August arrested and charged with his killing.
The five accused persons were, however, freed in October after DPP Llewellyn told the court that she was withdrawing the case, as there was no evidence linking the five to the murder of Hill.
The DPP's action, however, angered Terrence Williams, who sent a report to Parliament rejecting Llewellyn's position, and pointing out that there was no dispute over whether the three policemen were responsible for Hill's death.
Llewellyn responded that "a close examination" of Williams' report revealed "misstatements and misconceptions relating to fact, law and policy".
The issue has since triggered a conflict between members of another joint select committee of Parliament over whether INDECOM, which is a commission of Parliament, ought not to be reined in by a level of independent oversight outside of Parliament.
Minister of National Security Peter Bunting, and Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding, have both expressed support for this additional level of oversight, although their position has in no way been connected with the particular incident involving Hill's death. But, the majority of members on the JSC appear to oppose an additional oversight mechanism.
Local human rights groups, however, see the position taken by the ministers as another attempt to limit the powers of INDECOM. The commission took over investigations concerning actions by members of the Security Forces and other agents of the State that result in death or injury to persons, or the abuse of the rights of persons and connected matters, from the Police Public Complaints Authority on August 16, 2010.
It has also triggered a rift between INDECOM and the ODPP, since last October.
Following the complaints made by Williams in a report to Parliament on October 30, objecting to the decision to discontinue the case against the persons accused of Hill's murder, the DPP suggested that:
"... It is our view that the interests of justice would best be served if, like the Jamaica Constabulary Force, INDECOM has a direct oversight body of persons who can offer an avenue to complaints by aggrieved parties, where they may have been the victim of what they perceive to be an abuse of office or authority by INDECOM and its officers."
In response, Commissioner Williams told a recent meeting of the committee reviewing INDECOM's performance since 2010 that, while he is not ready to make a full statement on the issue, there is need for its oversight mechanism to be understood.
"I think that many of the parties asking for further oversight seem, with respect, to have missed the fact that there is currently a whole raft of oversight for INDECOM," Williams told the committee.
"Most importantly, the Office of the Public Defender has oversight for all government agencies, including INDECOM, under the Public Defender Interim Act. We are not excluded, but the DPP and the Jamaica Defence Force are excluded," Williams said.
These developments show how important it is for the reconstituted "Commissions of Parliament Committee" to show more responsibility in exploring these matters, and why it is necessary for it to be given full support by Parliament in meeting its deadlines.
I must admit that the recent history of this committee is not a good sign of how responsible and effective parliamentary oversight can be, and certainly gives credence to the position taken by Minister Bunting that Parliament might not have the capacity to give proper oversight to the growing number of commissions for which it is responsible.
Leader of the House Phillip Paulwell, however, understands the importance, and should use his authority to ensure that a proper committee is instituted and give it the support it needs to be effective.